Cougar Den Inc. buys tax-free fuel from Oregon and then sells the gasoline to tribal member-owned gas stations on the Yakama Nation reservation, including Wheelers Kountry Korner. Whether the imported gasoline is exempt from state taxes or not is still subject to legal debate. (GORDON KING/Yakima Herald-Republic)

YAKIMA, Wash. – The U.S. Solicitor General has recommended the U.S. Supreme Court consider whether Yakama tribal members are exempt from paying state gas taxes on the reservation, but the high court has not yet decided if it will hear the case.

A Thursday story by the Yakima Herald-Republic incorrectly stated the high court had agreed to review the case. The Solicitor General made the recommendation in a brief filed Tuesday, but the recommendation has not been acted on.

Each year, the Supreme Court receives about 8,000 petitions to review decisions from lower courts. The justices typically agree to hear only a fraction of those cases — about 80 each year.

The Yakama case dates to 2013 when the state Department of Licensing sued the Cougar Den, a White Swan gas station and convenience store owned by tribal member Kip Ramsey, saying it brought out-of-state fuel onto the reservation without paying the state’s fuel tax and owed the state $3.6 million in unpaid taxes.

Initially, an administrative law judge cited the Yakama Treaty of 1855 in a ruling favorable to the tribe.

That ruling was overturned by the department’s director and subsequently landed in Yakima County Superior Court, which also ruled in favor of the tribe. The state’s high court upheld the ruling in an appeal.

Rulings in both lower courts were based on a 2007 federal Ninth Circuit of Appeals ruling regarding wholesale cigarettes brought onto the reservation without paying the state’s tobacco tax. Known as the Smiskin ruling, that decision interpreted the treaty as allowing Yakamas a right to freely travel all roads and bring goods to market.

A sovereign nation, the Yakama Nation and its members are exempt from state tobacco, gas and sales tax on the reservation. But state authorities have long complained that too often non-tribal members buy goods at reservation shops and escape state taxes.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether state courts viewed the Smiskin ruling too broadly when ruling on the gas tax case.

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